Officials with the local office of the state Department of Public Health said Wednesday that one of the two deaths that are part of a recent respiratory illness outbreak could be associated with the H1N1 flu virus.
Lesa C. Smith, a registered nurse with state Department of Public Health, also said the number of people admitted to local hospitals during the recent respiratory illness outbreak has increased from seven to nine.
“We can’t say that the person died with H1N1, but we can say it was a death associated with it,” Smith said. “A total of nine have been admitted. We know some people are recovering, and are going home.”
Corey Kirkland, a health department spokesperson, said the two deaths occurred Saturday and Sunday.
Several local state Department of Public Health officials held a press conference Tuesday morning to release information about a recent outbreak or “cluster” of respiratory illnesses to hit Southeast Alabama.
Smith said the three key symptoms area residents need to be on the lookout for includes shortness of breath, coughing and fever.
“We’re looking at those three things, but so far we don’t have a common factor among all of them,” Kirkland said. “There are many different types of respiratory disease. We haven’t pinned it down to one specific illness. Right now we’re looking for patients who are showing these symptoms.”
Kirkland said two of the people tested positive for specific viruses, which included the H1N1 flu virus. He said another person tested positive for the type A flu virus, which Smith said was the typical seasonal flu virus.
“We’re still in the investigative state, and we’re still waiting other tests to come back,” Kirkland said.
Health department officials have said all nine people admitted to local hospitals were within an eight-county southeast region, which includes Barbour, Coffee, Crenshaw, Dale, Geneva, Henry, Houston and Pike County.
Kirkland confirmed officials with the state Department of Public Health sent out a guideline of information to hospitals in the area and to local physicians.
According to the filing found through the state Department of Health’s website, the state Department of Public Health was first notified of the respiratory illnesses last Thursday after a doctor reported three patients had been hospitalized with a cough, shortness of breath and pneumonia and were on ventilators, all of whom had no known cause for their illnesses.
At that point the Alabama Department of Public Health along with the Houston County Health Department started their investigation to interview the families about travel and exposure.
The filing also said one of the three patients tested positive on Friday for the 2009 H1N1 (flu virus). That patient died the next day. The same hospital reported a transferred patient on a ventilator with respiratory symptoms had died on Sunday.
The guideline sent out also said “while two patients have tested positive for influenza, the exact role of influenza in this cluster is unknown.”
Smith said the flu seasons can occur at any time of the year, but usually the worst ones come in January and February, and this year it went into April and May.
“There has been a late flu season before we started following this particular outbreak. This particular year it seems to be a late flu season,” Smith said. “But that does not mean this respiratory illness is the flu. We haven’t got enough labs back to determine if this is indeed what we’re dealing with.”